The junior British army officer: experience and identity, 1793-1815
PhD thesis, University of Tasmania. (2017)
The bulk of British army officers during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were junior officers, namely officers who held the rank of captain, or lower. Scholarship revealing the intellectual and cultural life of the British army during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is expanding; however, junior officers have received little specific scholarly attention. This thesis is the first full-length study of junior army officers, and has ‘identity and experience’ as its central themes. A combination of military and cultural history, this thesis examines British junior officers as products of the military and of Georgian society, and draws on histories of masculinity, family life, and national and political identities to interpret their experiences. This thesis focuses on the lived experiences of junior officers, and interrogates three main types of personal accounts, namely letters, diaries and journals, and memoirs. This group of officers developed a set of sensibilities and perspectives that were bound to their middling status within the army’s hierarchy. Junior officers were imbued with significant authority over the rank and file, yet were subjected to the authority of superior officers. As some of the youngest members of the officer corps, junior officers straddled the lines between the civilian and military spheres, and between youth and adulthood.
This thesis argues that the tensions inherent in such a position saw junior officers develop an identity as junior officers, which shaped other aspects of their identity. Junior officers fashioned identities as ‘polite gentlemen’, with the regimental mess inculcating a sense of gentlemanly value. Junior officers displayed careerist and professional ambitions, and hoped for promotion to deliver them from their subordinate position. While the honour culture of the officer corps could conflict with some new officers’ sense of masculinity, junior officers found themselves embroiled in a performative culture of honour, which included fighting duels. Although military service entailed separation from family and friends, junior officers were adept at staying in touch with family members, with some officers contriving to bring their families into the field. These family bonds proved strong enough to outweigh comparatively fluid regimental loyalties. Drawing on their social standing and the language of sensibility, junior officers styled themselves as brave patriarchs, leading from the front and caring for their men. Serving within a truly ‘British’ army, junior officers’ service had the effect of dissolving national differences, while their conceptions of patriotism broadened as the Revolutionary War gave way to war with Napoleon.